Macron seen winning French TV debate, clashes with Le Pen on Islam

French presidential election candidates Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoit Hamon, pose before a debate organised by French private TV channel TF1. Aubervilliers, 20 March. [REUTERS/Patrick Kovarik/Pool]

Centrist Emmanuel Macron solidified his status as frontrunner in France’s presidential election on Monday (20 March) in a televised debate during which he clashed on immigration and Europe with his main rival, far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

A snap opinion poll showed Macron, a former economy minister who has never run for public office before, was seen as the most convincing among the top five contenders in a marathon debate of nearly three and a half hours that delivered no knock-outs.

The debate, and the two others that will follow ahead of the April 23 first round, are seen as crucial in an election in which nearly 40% of voters say they are not sure who to back.

“You are failing (voters) by twisting the truth,” Macron told Le Pen when she talked about a rise of radical Islam in France and said he was in favour of the burkini, a full-body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women that stirred much controversy in France last summer.

Later in the debate, National Front leader Le Pen mocked Macron, saying, of his comments: “It’s completely empty. I want to attract the French people’s attention to the fact that every time you talk, you say a bit of this, a bit of that, and never decide.”

Macron seen as the most convincing

Opinion polls have for weeks shown Le Pen and Macron pulling away from the pack in an election full of twists and turns which is taking place against a backdrop of high unemployment and sluggish growth.

29% of viewers thought Macron was the most convincing, ahead of firebrand leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon with 20%, while Le Pen and conservative François Fillon were tied in third place, a snap survey conducted online by Elabe pollsters towards the end of the debate showed. Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon came in last.

After the surprise of Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, markets are nervous about the possibility of a Le Pen victory. She is pledging to take France out of the euro and hold a referendum on EU membership.

Only the top two candidates go through to the runoff, where polls show Macron easily beating Le Pen.

But with so many voters undecided and polls showing the abstention rate could be higher than ever in France, the level of uncertainty remains high. A high abstention rate could benefit Le Pen as polls consistently show that her supporters are the most certain of their vote.

Quiz: Who should you vote for in the French election?

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Scandals

Fillon, a one-time frontrunner who has fallen back over by a scandal surrounding the employment of his wife as a parliamentary assistant, has been put under formal investigation, a first for a French presidential candidate.

But the scandal, which has dominated the campaign for weeks, occupied relatively little time in the debate.

Fillon, a former prime minister, himself alluded to the scandal, saying: “I may have committed some errors, I have faults, who doesn’t, but I am experienced.”

Macron, a former investment banker, came under criticism for private donations made to his campaign when Hamon suggested he could fall under the influence of lobbies in the pharmaceutical, banking or oil industry.

Macron retorted that he was the only candidate who was not funded by public money, since his party is new and had not yet benefited from public subsidies. “I pledge to be controlled by no one,” he said.

“The traditional parties, those that have for decades failed to solve yesterday’s problems, won’t be able to do it tomorrow either,” said Macron, who made a name for himself by criticising sacred cows of the French “social model” such as the 35-hour workweek.

French conservatives in disarray as Fillon clings on

France’s conservatives appeared to be at war with themselves less than 50 days from the presidential election as François Fillon clung on to his struggling, scandal-tainted campaign and senior party members fought to oust him as their candidate.

Borrowing Brexit line, Le Pen warns of “project fear” on euro

Le Pen repeatedly stressed her opposition to the European Union, saying she did not want to see France become a “vague region” of the bloc. “I don’t want to be the vice chancellor of Angela Merkel,” she said, referring to the German leader.

She sought to portray Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s election in the United States as examples to follow and said these decisions did not have the catastrophic results predicted by opponents.

“This is called ‘project fear’. It was used before Brexit, it was used before Donald Trump’s election,” she said, adding that the British economy was growing faster than the EU and had lower unemployment despite Brexit.

Le Pen came under fire from Fillon who said a so-called “Frexit” would create economic and social chaos.

“The real serial killer for French spending power is Mrs Le Pen with her plans to exit the euro and restore the franc: that would spark runwaway inflation,” Fillon said in the debate.

The TV debate was the top trending topic on Twitter in France on Monday before it even started. Television debates were key to Fillon’s victory in the centre-right primaries in November and to Benoit Hamon in the Socialist primaries in January.

AfD and National Front converge ahead of elections

The right-wing spiral of Germany’s anti-EU Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) has brought it shoulder to shoulder with France’s National Front (NF). The two parties see eye-to-eye on a number of issues, including Russia. EURACTIV France reports.

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